Scenes from the Empire
By Mari Murdock, Maxime Lemaire, & Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
A small village outside Toshi Ranbo, Month of the Hare, 1200
Ujina Tatsuhei tightened his grip around a small package of medicine as he trudged from the apothecary’s shop to his smithy. He barely noticed the usual night rabble of Lion soldiers and military servants as he lumbered past brightly lit lanterns swaying in the village sake house. The world was silent to him and the wintry night cold. His son had been ill for months now, and the yakuzaishi, the apothecary, had promised that this new batch of powders would cure him. The blacksmith furrowed his brow.
“Promises,” he muttered to himself as pulled out a key and unlocked the door to his dark shop. He slammed the door behind him. “What good are promises?”
“Exceptionally good,” a quiet, cankered voice answered. “If they come from the right source.”
Tatsuhei froze, squinting to adjust his eyes to the dim glow of the forge. The embers reflected off rows of weapons that hung on a dozen weapon racks, glinting like a hundred tongues of flame. As far as he could tell, the room was empty.
“I thought I locked up,” he mumbled.
“You did,” the voice grated again. A shadowy figure materialized from a rack of yari directly in front of him. Clad entirely in black, the stranger’s face was covered with a dark red cloth so only his smiling eyes were visible.
“Scorpion!” Tatsuhei started. “How did you get in here?”
“Now now, Hare,” the stranger censured. He sat on Tatsuhei’s work-polished anvil and plucked up a crude bar of unworked iron. He twirled it deftly in his hands, despite the weight. “What harsh questions for a customer.”
“I do not work for the Scorpion,” the blacksmith attempted to explain. He almost dropped his precious parcel as his hands shook in fear. “Our village is under the protection of the Lion. Should they find out that I have forged for you, my life is forfeit…”
“The Lion shall not know I was here,” the shinobi chuckled. “You dishonor my reputation with such words.”
“Please leave. I must see to my family. My son…”
“… Your son is ill. We know.” The Scorpion tossed Tatsuhei the piece of iron he had been toying with. The blacksmith caught it with fumbling hands. “Tell me, Master Tatsuhei, what promises have the Lion given you for your services?”
“Money after the war. Protection for my family during it…”
“… Can they promise you the life of your son?”
Tatsuhei froze. He stared at the stranger, hoping to discover why this was happening. “Who are you?”
“Shosuro Tagiso,” the Scorpion whispered simply, as if the name was of no consequence. “I have come to you with a proposition, Master Tatsuhei.”
“What kind of proposition? You want weapons? I cannot do this. I already have promised the Lion so many spears and swords and…” He trailed off as twin daggers with red blades flitted into Tagiso’s hands, seemingly from thin air.
“It won’t surprise you to know that the Lion are not the only ones with wishes for exceptional weapon smiths.” Tagiso spun his daggers in an intricate pattern before resting the blades on Tatsuhei’s shoulders. “I have come to take you with me.”
“What?” Tatsuhei croaked, his mouth going dry. “What do you mean?”
“You are an exceptional blacksmith, Tatsuhei. Your skill in weaponry came to interest us some time ago, particularly since we heard rumors of your ability to create flawless katana in only a matter of days, should the right materials come through your hands. We wish to monopolize your efforts.”
“You cannot expect me to leave. Not when my son…”
“… We shall take care of your son, Tatsuhei-san,” the Scorpion reassured him, his daggers moving closer toward the Hare’s throat. “What do you say? Our promise… for yours.”
Tatsuhei clenched his strong hands together, the vulnerability of his situation sinking in. He knew that to choose sides in a war not his own could cost him dearly, yet he knew he could not in honesty call the Lion his friends or allies. His poor village was only the Lion’s pawn, this whole conversation had been a game for the Scorpion, and Tatsuhei knew he could not win against either. His efforts in the grand scheme of the war were meaningless. He thought of Shou, his son, his dear boy who lay feverish and delirious only a few rooms away.
“I will go with you, Shosuro Tagiso.”
The shinobi’s dark eyes gleamed in the forge light. His red-bladed daggers vanished, replaced with a small vial of purple liquid, which he extended to the blacksmith. “You have made the right choice, Tatsuhei. Take this to your son and have him drink it. Say nothing of our bargain to a single soul.”
“But, what shall my family think? That I’ve just abandoned them?”
“Oh no. We shall not do your last memory such dishonor.” The Scorpion chuckled in his raspy voice. “Bring me an extra set of your clothes. We shall leave them a body.”
* * *
The Ghost of the Grove
The Traitor’s Grove, in the Scorpion Lands
Bayushi Hoitsu strolled the long lines of black pebbles in the cool twilight air, his arms behind his back and his smile flourishing in the dying sun. The last flames of light glinted off his tarnished silver mask, bloodying the patina in sinister shades. Around his waist hung a gardener’s obi with several newly-sharpened tools and gourd bottles dangling from it. They clinked together as he ambled past the tall, silent bodies of the trees. He was alone, but as the Ghost of the Traitor’s Grove, he knew he was among friends.
“Good evening, Ranshin-san,” he whispered to one lonely cedar. The tree did not move, nor did the wind rustle its leaves, but Hoitsu’s smile cracked his face in delight. “You seem well this evening.”
He lifted a tiny pair of shears from his belt and gently pruned a single branch with a series of meticulous snips, catching the clippings in a special fold in his kimono sleeve. After the limb curved to his satisfaction, he stood back and nodded.
“Yes, that will do. Feels better, does it not? Do you like this new path I made today?” He stamped on the small black stones of the road which swept deep into the trees like a dark river. “Our garden grows more and more beautiful. After the path, I shall set to work on the little stone bridge over the brook. Then, we can all walk the around our grove together.” He laughed as he moved on down the path.
He moved on to pause in front of a strong beech where a new suit of armor lashed to its boughs swayed like a hanged corpse. “And you, Chouteki-san.” Hoitsu caressed the tree’s cold trunk with a work-worn hand. A dagger, stuck into the bark at heart level, protruded beneath his fingers. “Ah, I see. You are trying to run away from us. How undignified.” He lifted a small brass hammer from his belt and gave the butt of the dagger’s hilt a few strong taps. Then, he dripped a few globs of black pitch from a gourd onto the tree wound to seal the looseness. “There we go. We cannot have you leaving us so soon. Not when we have only just become used to your presence.”
Next, he stopped at a lithe maple with fiery leaves and several silk fans hanging upside down from its limbs. “Ah, Neishin-chan. How beautiful you are this starlit night.” The Ghost frowned and stooped to carefully pick up several blood red, six-pointed leaves from ground beneath it. “Now, don’t cry, my dear. You shall ruin your foliage. You must keep your strength if your tree is going to stand the test of the ages. Remember, we are all friends here.” He secreted the leaves into his sleeve and continued on his rounds.
The Ghost cleared the cobwebs from a silver oak. Haishinja. He whispered an enlivening spell over an ancient holly. Baikokudo. He gently chiseled stubs of lichen from a young pine. Zokushi. Traitors. Traitors to the Scorpion clan, their bodies buried beneath their tree, their souls trapped inside, and the Ghost spoke to each one.
* * *
A stout walnut with a weathered lacquer mask tied to its dagger was the next item of Hoitsu’s attention. A bird snare hung in its lower branches shuddered in the shadows with the jerks of a caught victim. “What have we here in your arms, Gyakuzoku-san?” Hoitsu crooned, his eyes brightening at his luck. “A woodpecker? How fortunate.”
He snatched the bird with a strong grip, snapping its neck with the same motion. “This little enemy won’t be bothering you anymore,” he whispered as he slipped the warm body into his sleeve. He set the snare again. “Your cage is much too precious to drill little holes in.”
“So the rumors are true,” a sneering voice called from behind him. The rising moon illuminated a short samurai in a red armor and black silk evening kimono carrying a yellow paper lantern. Bayushi Dakatsu. The candlelight cast a wicked gleam on the teeth of his oni mempo as his purposeful strides crunched the pebbles beneath his heavy boots. “Spending all your time with only trees for company has made you deranged.”
“It is not deranged to enjoy one’s work or to greet those you pass by, Dakatsu-san,” Hoitsu answered, relaxing on his heels and tucking his arms behind his back. “I strive to be polite to my charges.”
“They are the grave markers of traitors,” Dakatsu said. “It seems to me that you seek to honor them, turning their graveyard into a bonsai pleasure garden instead of letting their bodies rot away in the disgrace that they lived by.”
Hoitsu took a step forward, fingering the handle of a tiny pruning blade at his waist as if it were a wakizashi. “You mistake my care for compassion, Dakatsu,” he whispered, his voice softening with serious anger. “Here, we are surrounded by liars, thieves, murderers, and worse, all trapped here for as long of an eternity as I can give them, and as keeper of their prison, do you know what I believe they deserve above all else?”
“What is that, old man?” Dakatsu scoffed, his face growing warm in amusement.
“A garden.” Hoitsu laughed and lifted his silver mask in a friendly gesture to reveal the darkness of his smile. “Tantalizing, isn’t it? A paradise so close that they cannot touch. As their warden of torment, I shall not let their shame fade, lost in the tangles of a jungle. Let us polish their crimes like bright plaques above their cages and enjoy ourselves as we do so.”
Dakatsu laughed out loud, his voice carrying through the black bodies of the trees. “Your sense of irony is sick, old man. I misjudged you.” He pointed to the closest beech with a helmet nailed to its trunk. “Now tell me, when you perform the ritual to condemn your victims to spend the afterlife here, how necessary is their body?”
“What do you mean?”
“We have located a traitor whose reckoning is long overdue, but all we have left of him are his ashes.”
Hoitsu’s eyes narrowed. “The traitor Yogo Junzo’s ashes were scattered here long ago, but his soul is not here,” he mumbled. He thought for a moment. “Perhaps what you ask could be accomplished if a shugenja could summon his spirit from the afterlife…”
“…Then there is a way.” Dakatsu took the Ghost by the arm and guided him toward Kyuden Bayushi. “Come. We have much to discuss.”
“What are we discussing?”
* * *
The capital of the Empire was a city which never ceased to bustle with activity, regardless of the time off the year. However, with the impending coronation of the Emperor and the wave of festivals which had been announced, excitement swept through the population. Everywhere one turned, decorations were being hung, merchants bustled with their wares, samurai arrived from all corners of the Empire, and countless other actions that prepared the city for its celebrations. However, none drew more attention than the trio of visitors who slowly made their way to the Imperial Palace.
Their green skin and the long snake tails where humans have legs showed them as members of the Naga race. Reactions varied from respectful bows to amazed stares to angry glares. Rokugan had always had a complex relationship with the ancient Naga Empire, fraught with friendship and enmity in equal measures, and the recent depredations of the Dark Naga had made the sight of snakemen a bitter one to many. Nevertheless, the three Naga warriors continued to slither unimpeded until they reached the gates to the Imperial Palace.
“Greetings,” said the only female of the group. “I am the Zenathaar. We seek an audience with the Iweko, to offer our friendship and support against the Foul.”
To their credit, the Seppun sentries at the gates showed no sign of unease, despite the more than unusual visitors.
“Very well,” one of them said. “If you follow me, I will lead you to the guest quarters where you can wait until the Empress is ready to greet you.”
The Zenathaar bowed, an awkward gesture given her inhuman physiology. She and her two companions made their way to the gate, and all eyes remained on them until the gates were finally shut.
* * *
The Imperial Throne Room looked almost empty as the Naga delegation was ushered in, a stark contrast to the usual crowds of courtiers and advisors. The Empress had requested to meet the Naga in private, however, which was understood by many to be a security matter more than a real sign of favor. Besides, fewer courtiers present also meant a lower risk of diplomatic incident, which were all too frequent when such different people were involved.
“The Empress Iweko the First welcomes the Zenathaar and her fellow warriors to the capital,” Hida Kozan called out to the nearly vacant room.
“We thank the Kozan for his greetings,” the Zenathaar answered. “We appreciate the Iweko taking the time to meet with us. It is our understanding that a new Iweko will soon take up the role.”
“That is… correct, yes,” Kozan answered. As emperors always used the same name, it was one of the only successions the Naga usually understood without much trouble. “The son of the Empress, Iweko Seiken, will soon be crowned emperor, which is why the people outside those walls are preparing to celebrate.”
The Zenathaar smiled, but her two companions exchanged a feeling of concern through the Akasha. Naga considered it inappropriate to discuss matters of lineage. Thankfully, they kept that impression silent, as their spiritual connection allowed them to silently communicate simple feelings.
“We are pleased that human Empire remains strong,” the Zenathaar said. “We have come to tell the Iweko that we are now chasing the remnants of the Dark Naga’s army, in the whole human Empire and beyond. It is our sacred duty, and we thank the humans for their assistance, but the fault lies entirely with the Naga themselves, and we will not sit idly by any further.”
“The Empress thanks you for your help,” Hida Kozan said. “She understands the Dark Naga were under a sinister influence, and that it does not in any way reflect on the purity of hearts of the Naga race.”
The Zenathaar bowed as low as she could. “These words fill our heart with joy. The Iweko is truly a wise leader. It is our hope that our two people will continue to exist in harmony.”
Hida Kozan leaned towards the veiled throne, as he often did when he requires more input from the Empress. Although they heard nothing, the Naga weren’t surprised when he replied back to them, as they often used a form of silent communication themselves. “The Divine Empress agrees there is value in re-establishing regular communication with the Naga race. To that end, she will provide you with the resources necessary to rebuild your embassy here in the capital, where she would like you to stay as a liaison.”
“Thank you, the Kozan. I graciously accept the offer of the Iweko,” the Zenathaar said. “We pledge our blades to all Iweko, present and future, to fight the Foul whenever she commands.”
Hida Kozan raised an eyebrow. “You mean the Shadowlands and the Lying Darkness, of course. Regardless, the Empress appreciates your dedication to opposing evil.”
The Zenathaar nodded. “There is no higher duty for the Naga than to oppose the Foul, the Kozan. Although our forces are small now, more remain in slumber for the day when the Foul will rise again. I pray to the Atman that both our Empires remain strong and united until then.”
* * *
The small village outside Toshi Ranbo
Mirumoto Hikuryo marched through the sparsely populated streets of the small village with his hand firmly grasping the hilt of his katana. The sword jiggled loosely in the saya, and he struggled desperately to keep it from falling out, from revealing his shame.
A fool’s mistake, he angrily thought to himself. What fool only has half a sword?
He squeezed the hilt and furrowed his brow. He had carried the shards secretly for a little over a week, hiding the fact that his weapon was broken, and his fingers twitched at the nakedness such a dearth brought. He had never heard of a blade growing brittle in snowy mountain air and shattering in a fight. Luckily, the ronin that challenged him caught part of the sword deep in the eye. He didn’t last a moment past his first snigger. Luckily, Hikuryo had been able to find a skillful blacksmith in this out-of-the-way village who was willing to keep a secret.
A samurai’s only as good as his weapon, sensei always said. What does this make me good for then? The blacksmith promised to have the blade finished in a week’s time, a mere day before his duel with a Unicorn. That Hare Tatsuhei better have it finished.
As Hikuryo grumbled to himself, a small group of peasants and working class artisans rushed past him with black kerchiefs tied around their arms. They nearly bowled him over as they ran by.
“Where are you little rabbits off to in such a hurry?” The Dragon duelist asked.
“We go to the funeral,” one shouted over his shoulder.
“Ujina Tatsuhei! Mauled to death by wild boars!”
Hikuryo blinked. “What? Wild boars!” The news seemed too ridiculous to be true. My cursed fortune. That damned blacksmith promised me my new katana today! How can he give it to me if he’s dead?
The Dragon broke into a sprint, furious at this new brush with bad luck. The reality of his humiliation grew thick and heavy in his heart. If Saeki and the imperial representative found out that he had no sword and must postpone the duel, he would shame his family, his clan. By the fates and fortunes and Jigoku itself. Why today of all days? Who’s ever heard of boars killing blacksmiths?
He ran all the way to Tatsuhei’s smithy where smoke still bloomed from the chimney. The doors were partially open and shadows flickered inside.
“Is anyone in there?” Hikuryo called out.
“Hai,” a raspy voice called from inside. “Someone is here. Who is it?”
The Dragon shoved his way inside, his fury coiling his muscles into jerky strides. His mouth curled into a horrible grimace as he prepared himself for more bad news.
“Mirumoto Hikuryo. I have come for a sword that damned deceased blacksmith promised me. I paid good money and…” His voice trailed off as he found himself face to face with a lean-muscled young man with brooding eyes and a scowl. “Who are you?”
“Ujina Shou,” the young man mumbled. “The blacksmith’s son.”
Hikuryo ignored tact and brushed past him to look at the workbench. He scanned several blades scattered on its surface, each too short to be meant for a katana. “Oh, right. His apprenticed son. Are you taking over your father then?”
The Hare nodded, his fists clenched into tight knots.
“Why aren’t you at the funeral with the rest of the village?”
The apprentice merely snatched a fire poker and stoked the forge, his angry silence answering Hikuryo’s insensitivity. The Dragon growled another curse under his breath. “Damn artisans. Where is my sword, Hare? Your father promised it to me today.”
Shou trudged to the back wall and lifted a leather flap hanging over a weapons rack. He produced a katana blade, which he hefted with one hand, and set it before Hikuryo on the workbench. The Dragon scanned the blade with hurried eyes, noting the precision and skill with which the steel had been worked. Tatsuhei’s maker’s seal was stamped into the end near where the hilt should have been.
“Where’s the hilt?” Hikuryo growled.
“Father hadn’t made it yet.”
“Well, you make it. Now. You are the new blacksmith, and I paid for a sword, not half of one.”
The Hare collected a few lengths of silken cord from a shelf and began to braid them along the length of the handle in precise, intricate designs. He did not look up as he worked. Hikuryo leaned himself against the wall, waiting, thinking.
Cursed luck. Perhaps, I should go to a monastery tomorrow. Prayer might help if I have some dark fortune following me. He paused.
“You know, last week your father said you were ill. He said you were dying.”
The apprentice did not stop his work, never faltering in his lashing of the cords. “Why do you think I was not allowed at the funeral?” he whispered, his voice cold with anger.
The Dragon stood straight. “Wait. You aren’t… you don’t have some kind of plague, do you?”
The apprentice tied off the last pieces of black silk and cut the ends off. He inspected the work with a quick glance, then held the finished katana out toward Hikuryo. The Dragon did not move.
“No,” the apprentice mumbled. “Not plague. Just bad luck. Bad fortune seems to follow my family these days.”
“I know the ailment,” the Dragon answered. Hikuryo took the sword from Shou and carefully sheathed it into his saya. A perfect fit. He unsheathed it and practiced a few strokes in the air, testing the balance. The sword rung with each stroke. A masterful blade. Tatsuhei knew his trade well.
The Dragon tossed the apprentice a coin, which he did not catch. The Hare was now handling a pair of twin daggers with red blades, one in each fist, carefully turning them over and over, as if inspecting them. Something about the ease with which the young blacksmith handled the blades chilled him, but Hikuryo pushed the notion aside. He had a duel to prepare for. He muttered his thanks and marched out the door.
* * *
On the road near Toshi Ranbo
Hikuryo sat on a stone near a small back road, waiting for his opponent, fingering the freshly braided hilt of his new katana. His opponent was late.
You’d think a Unicorn would be on time, he thought to himself. They have horses.
“If she doesn’t come, does that mean I win?” he snickered to the imperial representative sent to witness the duel. The representative frowned and clutched his fur robe around him more tightly, warding off the wintry air.
“I am not sure about the proper protocol of an absent…”
A sudden rumbling announced her approach. She wheeled off her steed and bowed deeply to the representative, her long black hair streaming behind her. She gave Hikuryo a mere nod. “Excuse my lateness. There were urgent matters to attend to from my superiors. Let us begin.”
Hikuryo laughed heartily. “In a hurry to fail?” He struggled to remember her name. He could not conjure it.
“I am in a hurry to finish. I have important business elsewhere,” she hissed haughtily.
“You are a novice then,” the duelist laughed. “This is important business.”
She smiled at his jest but narrowed her violet eyes. “You challenged me because you thought my horse trod on your foot. I assure you, this is not important. Defending the honor of Riha is only a pleasurable distraction.”
Now I know the horse’s name.
Hikuryo assumed his stance. “Shall we begin?”
She nodded her assent. The representative unrolled a short scroll and recited the officiating terms of the duel.
“... This imperially sanctioned ketsuiki duel, a fight to the first blood, seeks to end conflict between Mirumoto Hikuryo and Shinjo Saeki...”
Saeki. That was her name. Hikuryo grinned at her and drew his new blade. The katana felt light and smooth in his hand, and he felt his blood warm in excitement. The small woman drew her own blade and assumed a strange stance he did not recognize.
The witness finished his reading. “You may now begin!”
Hikuryo lunged. Saeki parried with a sharp angle. He lunged again, engaging her in a flurry of blows that sliced through the cold air. His new katana sung with the strength of its steel. Though she met or dodged each of his strikes, her footwork was clumsy.
She really is a novice. She’s probably used to fighting on horseback.
Hikuryo fluidly inserted extra strokes into his kata, intricately timing his attacks around each side of her body. Left. Right. Left. Through. The young unicorn stumbled again but managed to dodge his blade at the last moment.
Luck is on her side today. I shall have to steal the victory from her.
He stepped back, allowing her aggressive movement forward, and feigned a weakness on the right side to trap her with a back-handed slice. As she stepped into his trap, he lunged again, aiming for her shoulder. In reaction, she instinctively snapped her blade around, just in time to knock his blade away. She yelled a battle cry and slammed her weight into him, her katana crashing into his and sliding all the way down to his cross guard. He leaped backward, but she followed him with stuttering steps.
She’s an animal! No form. No discipline.
He counter lunged at her, hoping to throw off her balance and catch her in the back with his blade. She did stumble, the strange number of steps she took interrupting the flow of her sword arm.
Hikuryo yelled his own battle cry and struck at her undefended back, the blade of his katana hissing through the air toward a chink in her lavender armor. Suddenly, the blade slipped right out of his hand, bouncing off her back and clattering to the ground. The Unicorn spun around and struck, but Hikuryo no longer had a weapon to block with, only lengths of black silk cord hanging emptily from his fingers. Her blow struck him deep in the chest. His eyes bulged in disbelief as he sank to his knees, his blood running down his body into the dirt. He choked on a painful breath and struggled not to cough as he collapsed.
“Hikuryo-san?” Saeki called, equally stunned that her blow landed. She rushed to his side, but he could only numbly feel her presence close. He was staring at the silk cords in his hands. The braiding had come loose. The sword fell apart.
Curse my fortune. And curse that blacksmith.
* * *
Months ago, the Colonies…
Daigotsu Kanpeki entered the silent sanctuary of his personal suite of rooms with an audible sigh of relief. The worrisome nagging of his various functionaries had been on the brink of causing him a violent episode, the sort which had in the past resulted in the death of at least one of said functionaries. It was satisfying, somewhat cathartic, but ultimately inconvenient in the replacement of such individuals, so he tried to avoid it whenever possible.
“Welcome home, husband.”
Kanpeki smiled gratefully as he removed his bracers. “Machiko-chan,” he said warmly. “It is an even greater relief than usual to see you, beloved.”
She smiled back at him. “And why is that?”
“I have not seen anyone I did not wish to kill for at least eight hours,” he replied. “It is quite tiresome, truthfully.”
Machiko laughed. It was a magical sound. “Remind me to tell you sometime of the Otomi family functions when I was a child.”
“Please, no,” Kanpeki said, holding his hands up mockingly. “I fear we would have to replace the entire palace staff.” His eyes lit upon one of the candles in the room, noticing how it flickered somewhat differently from the others, and his smile faded. “My dear, would you be kind enough to inform the kitchen staff that I would like to take the evening meal an hour later than the usual time?”
Machiko’s eyes narrowed and followed his gaze. She gave a knowing nod. “Of course, husband. Right away.” She left swiftly, closing the door behind her.
“Your presence was requested some time ago,” Kanpeki said.
The darkness swirled and coalesced, the lights somehow dimming of their own accord. There was a presence in the room suddenly, blossoming as if it were some terrible flower. My apologies, son of my friend, a hissing voice whispered in his ear. I have had pressing matters of my own to which I had to attend.
Kanpeki frowned at the thought. “Is it anything I should be aware of?”
No, the Shadow Dragon said, its tone bemused. Not any longer.
That troubled Kanpeki, but it was the least of his problems at present. “You know what I have been doing, of course.”
Supporting the scion of the Iweko line, the creature replied. The younger one.
“Do you know much of Shibatsu?” Kanpeki asked.
Enough to know that it does not interest me to be in his presence, the Shadow Dragon answered. That one is far too much like his mother for my tastes.
That drew a chuckle from Kanpeki. “Do you fear him?”
There is nothing mortal that I fear, the dragon replied. There was no suggestion of indignation in its tone, but then Kanpeki had never truly witnessed any emotion from the creature other than amusement or perhaps mild irritation.
“It is regarding the heirs that I wish to speak,” Kanpeki said, his voice quieting. “You served my father well, as you have served me, and I am grateful for the expertise that your… minions… bring to my clan.”
It is of course my exquisite pleasure, the dragon said, its tone once again bemused.
“I have a task that will be difficult even for you,” Kanpeki said. “I need you to kill Shibatsu-sama’s brother, Iweko Seiken.”
How very audacious of you, the creature said. Your father would be most proud.
“Will you do it?” Kanpeki pressed.
No. I will not.
The Spider Clan Champion considered the reply for a moment. “Why not?”
Seiken is a witless buffoon. Should he take the throne, it will be far simpler for me and mine to operate. He will never even know the difference.
Kanpeki clenched his teeth. “And if he destroys the Spider altogether?”
The Dragon considered for a moment. I do not believe that will happen. I do not believe he will take the throne at all, but his death would be a catalyst for much darker times. Regardless, men like him in power is a most beneficial thing.
The Spider Champion’s mood darkened. “I hope that you are correct. And you should hope that too.”
The dragon chuckled. You are your father’s son.
* * *
The Temple to the Dark God was well hidden, far from the prying eyes of even the most adventurous Tsuruchi scout. It was here, of all the many places that Kanpeki offered prayers to his father, that he felt closest to him. He had been little more than a toddler when his father has ascended to become the true Lord of Jigoku, when he had cast aside his mortal life and struck a bargain with the Divine Empress in order to secure a future for Kanpeki and all those who followed him. Daigotsu had been a man unlike any other, a man such as had not been seen since the dawn of the Empire.
Daigotsu Kanpeki was proud to be his son.
The familiar presence returned, winding in the shadows of columns and altars, seeking out the hidden places. Good fortunes to you, Lord of the Spider, the Shadow Dragon said.
“Hardly,” Kanpeki said, a bitter taste in his mouth. “You know everything.”
I do, it replied. Your man Shibatsu was not selected to succeed his mother. He will not sit upon the throne. His brother will.
“His brother,” Kanpeki said darkly, “whom you declined to eliminate when the opportunity afforded itself.”
Unfortunate, for you, as well as unexpected, it admitted. But there are many positives. This new Emperor will be much easier to manipulate.
“You betrayed me.”
Betrayed? The creature actually laughed. It was a chilling sound. You mistake an ally for a servant, Spider lord. I no more serve you than I served your father. We merely have similar objectives in the mortal realm.
“You swore an oath to my father.”
It is a simple matter to make mortals believe you’ve sworn them an oath. Particularly when they are burdened by ridiculous notions of honor.
Kanpeki smiled cruelly. “This was a difficult decision for me, but you have just made it far, far simpler.”
I do not care for your tone, mortal. The dragon hissed the last word menacingly.
“How unfortunate for you that what you do or do not care for matters not at all. Not to me… and not to my father.”
The atmosphere within the temple suddenly changed. It grew colder, and although the lights did not change, the shadows grew darker still than when the dragon had arrived. A wind rippled the building’s interior, and the flames flickered. Daigotsu! There was a sensation of movement, as if something tried to flee, but a greater force was present, and there was no escape.
“I will not be held back by some capricious beast that masks its cowardice with bravado and bemusement,” Kanpeki said through clenched teeth. “I have beseeched my father, and he has found your servitude,” he emphasized this last word, “wanting.”
You have failed to examine the long-term consequences of this action.
“I have failed only in that I trusted you, however little.” He gestured around to the temple. “Do you like the temple? It is my father’s house. It is your prison. He will keep you here, and cloak this temple from the eyes of mortals. You will be severed from all those you keep as your own. Those that are most corrupted by your touch shall waste away, but others will recover a fragment of their identity, and they will serve me.”
You overestimate yourself, mortal, the dragon roared. I will destroy you for this.
“I alone know the location of this temple,” Kanpeki said. “If I ever have need of you, I can come negotiate your release. If I die, the only way you will ever escape will be if my father loses his power over this place, and that,” he leaned forward, glaring, “is never going to happen.”
Daigotsu Kanpeki rose and left the temple. Behind him, it shimmered and disappeared, blending in perfectly with its jungle surroundings. Perhaps it was only his imagination, or perhaps it was a gift from his father, but Kanpeki thought he could still hear the enraged howls of the Shadow Dragon as he rode away.
It made him laugh.